Robert Connolly exposes a shameful episode in Australia's political history with his powerful new film, Balibo.
24 Jul 2009 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Jul 2014 - 6:52 AM

In October 1975 five Australian journalists were on the frontline to record the invasion of East Timor by Indonesian troops. All had heard the dire warnings from officials and locals, but the five decided to brave it out and get the story. Once the Indonesian soldiers hit the shoreline the journalists had it on film. In minutes they fled under fire and hid in a four hundred year old Portuguese fort in the tiny remote coastal hamlet of Balibo, which was quickly over run by the invaders. The Australians – Channel Seven's Greg Shackleton, Gary Cuningham and Tony Stewart and Channel Nine's Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie were discovered; they identified themselves as reporters and were executed on the spot by Indonesian troops.

“For decades the official line, from the Australian government, on what happened that day was that the reporters had been killed in a cross-fire,” says writer-director Robert Connolly, whose powerful and moving new feature explores the personal and political history surrounding the deaths of the 'Balibo Five'. “But once the coronial enquiry on the deaths was handed down it revealed that after an investigation including the testimony of hundreds of witnesses, not one could support the government's view.” The enquiry, released in 2007, some five years after Connolly had started researching his movie, uncovered a number of witnesses to support the view that the reporters had been brutally murdered.

As a dramatic thriller, Balibo engages with this history as part murder-mystery-procedural, part buddy movie and part political epic.

Connolly, who is unfashionably frank about both his politics and the process by which he develops his films, says the Balibo project started with a call from Anthony La Paglia, who had starred in the director's 2001 debut The Bank, a scathing indictment of corporate ethics in the guise of a thriller. “La Paglia and I shared similar politics and we wanted to do something together again and he told me about the book “Cover-Up” about the Balibo Five by Jill Jolliffe... that was in 2003.”

Instead of following exclusively the point of view of the doomed reporters, Balibo ambitiously moves back and forth in time, between the days leading up to the invasion and the dogged and dangerous investigation of veteran reporter Roger East (La Paglia), immediately after the reporters disappearance. “I think the Roger East angle is the great untold part of the Balibo Five story,” explains Connolly, “because any research you do leads you to that.”

It also led the filmmaker into developing what might have been a minor footnote of history into a major dramatic highpoint of the on screen drama: the fractious friendship between East and a 26 year-old Timorese man who joined the journalist in his investigation into the murders.

“It was amazing to find that that young man was Jose Ramos Horta, the future leader of East Timor.” Connolly says that researching the film was an gargantuan undertaking: a historian was engaged to sort through recently released government documents; relatives and colleagues of the murdered men were interviewed and Connolly and the feature team visited East Timor with Horta and others who had been witness to the events of 1975.

“The major historical events in the film are depicted with as much accuracy as we could in the film,” he says. “The liberty you have as a fiction filmmaker looking at historic events is that you can completely hypothesise and look deep (into the psychology).” Connolly says that his detailed research led him into an uncanny emotional accuracy. “I remember Horta telling us how he had tried to convince East to leave Timor and East refusing. Now he had not read the screenplay at that stage, and I had not heard that story and yet I had hypothesised that moment and we had scripted it!”

Shot on location in Timor with a tiny crew on an eight-week schedule, Balibo was produced with the full co-operation of Horta's government. “I knew we had to go there, I knew we couldn't recreate it in far north Queensland,” he says. But East Timor wasn't an easy location for investors: “it has a UN stage four travel warning, but in reality it was a lot easier to film there than we had aniticipated because of the generosity of the Timorese.” Still, the frightening possibilities for all were thrown into high relief when Horta had an attempt on his life during the films development.

Balibo is not documentary, or even observational in its dramatic approach. Still it puts the viewer right inside the events on screen with a sort of “you are there” quality and it came out of Connolly's feeling that the current cinema is moving away from the careful, elegant and precisely controlled conventions of visual storytelling that generations of audiences are used to into something more urgent and immediate.

“I had to get into a head space of creating a virtue of any surprises and using them to energise the film.” What this meant on set, he says was that at times when he called “action” he didn't know what was going to happen. Actors were instructed and a plan was worked out but only after a series of takes would Connolly and cinematographer Tristan Milani decide an angle, or shot that was essential. “It was really about exploring the drama with the camera in the moment.”

For Connolly Balibo is a passion project. Behind it is a human conviction that transcends politics: “Any historical event that a government conceals from you for some many years should have our attention.”

Balibo is set to open the Melbourne International Film Festival tonight.